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Vaccines Save Lives
It's not a debate
When historians look back to analyze this era's toxic irrationality, they may well focus on the anti-vaccine movement.
How tragic that we have to stand up and defend one of the most successful health innovations in the history of our species. Vaccines have saved hundreds of millions of lives and eradicated or greatly reduced scourges like smallpox and polio. They have protected millions from the worst effects of COVID and hastened a return to our pre-pandemic way of life, even though the dangers of the disease are not fully behind us.
Vaccines are also incredibly safe, especially when compared to all the other things people put into their bodies. There is no reputable scientific debate over any of this.
But none of these facts have dissuaded the instigators of ignorance, the cultivators of conspiracy theories, and the sellers of pseudoscience. They have whipped up their throngs of followers into a mania around vaccines that threatens the safety of this country and the world. And they have targeted doctors, scientists, and other medical professionals — the very people trying to keep us healthy.
This past weekend, we saw a particularly grave example of this destructive dynamic. Joe Rogan, the right-wing podcast host and frequent amplifier of conspiracy theories, welcomed notorious anti-vaxxer Robert Kennedy Jr. to his show. Kennedy is running for president as a Democratic challenger to President Biden, even though he sounds more like a MAGA Republican. Not surprisingly, he spouted his usual nonsense about the alleged dangers of vaccines, and Rogan ate it up.
That would have been bad enough. But the incident quickly escalated across social media and into the general press in a manner that speaks to our particularly troubled times. Pediatrician and vaccine expert Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, shared this article from Vice: “Spotify Has Stopped Even Sort of Trying to Stem Joe Rogan’s Vaccine Misinformation.” Spotify, the online music service, hosts Rogan’s podcast.
The response to Dr. Hotez’s tweet — which has now been viewed more than 28 million times — was a tidal wave of bananas. The doctor, a prominent voice on the importance of reputable science, was already a boogeyman for the anti-vaxxers and COVID deniers. They were ready to pounce. Rogan challenged Dr. Hotez to come on his podcast to “debate” Kennedy.
Then Elon Musk piled on and attacked Dr. Hotez on Twitter, which further empowered the legions of right-wing radicals. Dr. Hotez said he was confronted by anti-vaxxers outside his home. Scientists, journalists, and even business leaders like Mark Cuban jumped to the researcher’s defense against the onslaught of anti-science nonsense from Rogan, Musk, and their confederates.
There are many angles to this particular story that highlight the bad faith of the vaccine critics. They like to paint promoters of inoculations as tools of “Big Pharma.” But Dr. Hotez has developed a patent-free vaccine for COVID, which means neither he nor a big drug company will benefit financially from its use. Furthermore, going onto a podcast to talk about vaccines with Kennedy is not a “debate” — it’s performative nonsense. We don’t have NASA scientists debate flat Earthers.
And the idea that this is a matter of free speech is undercut when Musk uses the platform he bought to intimidate responsible voices by unleashing the mob (not to mention that we aren't talking about government prosecution). In the wake of this episode, reports indicate scientists are (understandably) leaving Twitter in greater numbers because it has become an increasingly vile environment for mainstreaming anti-science harassment.
More generally, this episode represents another data point in a very disturbing trend, one exacerbated by, but not limited to, COVID or vaccines. Science is under siege from powerful players in American politics, business, and culture. It is largely a phenomenon of the modern Republican party and its reactionary allies, but not exclusively. It can be seen in our haphazard response to the climate crisis but also in a broad assault on data, expertise, and knowledge. This overall, general attack on science as a whole is a threat to our national security, health, and welfare.
Science can be a wonderfully encouraging and hopeful endeavor. It is a means for learning about the mysteries of life and the universe. It can lead to solutions for seemingly intractable problems. It is why cancer is not always a death sentence, why we can turn sunlight into clean electricity and take pictures of distant stars. Scientists aren't perfect, of course. They are humans, after all. But science offers a way for us to arrive at important truths and then figure out where to go from there.
The likes of Kennedy, Rogan, and Musk are robbing us of this better future. By sowing discord and confusion, they are turning science and medicine into political footballs they toss back and forth at the public’s expense. But ultimately, the truth often wins out. Dr. Hotez and those who support him are standing up to the destructive bullying. In their courage and commitment, we can find reasons for hope.
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